Testimonial for Arts in Corrections Programs to California Arts Council

California Arts Council

1300 I Street, Suite 930

Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear CAC:

Teaching visual art at two prisons for the Muckenthaler Cultural Center has been and continues to be a learning experience.  The opportunity to work with inmates reveals the value of art making as a worthwhile endeavor for inmates, whose lives are dominated by the routines of prison, but who quickly grasp the opportunity for cultural experiences as a welcome release from the numbing daily repetition of incarceration, and the brief chance that programs provide for new thinking.  The possibility of experiencing ideas and the process of working with media, are movements toward the kind of inner thinking, akin to the notion of penitence, at the root of the work penitentiary.  Of course the word also implies punishment, as in the word penal colony.

This ambiguity in language expresses the contradiction at the core of prison experience. Inmate sentences reflect the severity of criminal activity against society.  The duration of incarceration relating to the severity of acts committed.  Effective, professional custody officers primary duty is to prevent escape.  Opportunities for re-thinking and re-orienting lives of inmates—the penitence within penitentiary—are not within the job description.

I should clarify that I am not involved with prison education because, I seek to challenge the justice system, or to question the purpose of incarceration in the first place.  In fact I seldom learn why inmates are incarcerated, unless I have worked with them for weeks, and they initiate.  I am teaching because the content of classes proves valuable for inmates because it frames a space for contemplative reflection.   There is a whole spectrum of thinking that individuals engage as they serve their sentences.  Providing meaningful programs directs some of this thinking towards socially beneficial outcomes.  Program participation is also a better use of time than the routine of prison life, which one inmate commented: Prison keeps you young.”  It is more like prison tends to freeze maturation processes at the level inmates experienced before incarceration.  Without opportunities to meaningfully consider new ways of being, and to regard themselves as valued, there is no chance at reforming.

Though I have many experiences teaching visual art to children, adolescents and adults in an array of situations—community centers, urban schools, universities, I initially found that inmates were very attentive students, who once they understood instruction, eagerly focused upon art processes.  Our conversations frequently referred to the relaxing and un-stressful environment of Artmaking classroom. One inmate even wrote a brief testimonial about the value of esthetic experience in his own life.  (A pdf copy is attached from inmate at ISP)  He is not alone in finding benefit from visual art classes, despite having little prior experience with art in corrections, or any pretense of being a visual artist.  Except for his literacy and willingness to share his opinions in writing, his view is typical of most inmates, who come to discover a sense of personal worth through the activity of drawing and painting.  My classes also include many occasions for conversations about artistic meaning, the purposes of art, and the difficulties of manipulating media to create convincing artifacts.

A theme surfacing in conversations with inmates is the absence of hobby programs that enable regular practice.  I understand the value of hobby programs, yet am careful to distinguish my programs, from a routine opportunity to practice a hobby or craft skill.  My program is different because the work is not really about activity to create products, and pass the time; it is more about discovering ways to transform perception, spatial awareness and memory into a representation.  The concept is never to produce the perfect example, it is always to reach for different horizon. Some products do emerge from the process, the time goes by pleasantly for most.

This is a challenge for many individuals who have adjusted to rules-based environment. (The adjustment to prison rules is also a factor in performing my job as an art teacher with appropriate concerns for personal safety, regard for security, and respect for individuals and procedures that run the place.)  I have observed that though Dept of Corrections has included the word “Rehabilitation” in its name, Custody Officers have little opportunity, or knowledge of reform.  I have met several who apply community policing methods to run their yards by getting to know attitudes of inmates through routine practice of communication.  This has the added benefit of expanding the information about inmates, and also addresses problems while relatively small.  This is not the same as longer-term process of rehabilitation, which except for the significant and ongoing effort to maintain security and the routines of prison life, is not the same as engaging rehabilitation.  Custody officers are clear on the professional separation between custody and rehabilitation.  It not that they are the problem, it is simply not within the role/job description/expertise.

As teacher within the system, I am also charged with responsibility for maintaining supervision over inmates, yet in the environment of the classroom, I endeavor to build trust for sharing communications, not merely about procedures that re-enforce the fact of incarceration, but also offer a means of making a meaningful platform for proactive engagement with visual art ideas. Though I speak about trust, I have clear boundaries for information that I will share.  What I mean is that I endeavor to establish relationships that enable speaking truthfully about the activities and results obtained in class.  Perhaps “respect” more like the word.  It does not take long to comprehend which inmates are actually participating, and those who use the class as a temporary respite from prison routines. I have never had to request someone or group be removed from class, although in lower security situations about 15-20% might not attend the full program.

Having acknowledged the need to work with custody officers, let me briefly discuss some practical concerns.  In the 5 two-week programs I presented at 2 at High Desert and 3 at Ironwood State Prisons, I have found challenges to running an effective presentation, where “effective” means filling the seats of my classroom with willing participants who arrive on time, and who will stay focused.  In my experience the prisons have done well to adapt education facilities to fit studio art.   Through trial and error, I have also learned the importance of securing my equipment, when class is not in session.  I have had fewer difficulties counting out supplies and tools, as I better anticipate the flow of classroom experience.  Many of the challenges occur because of unclear communication about the program, or misunderstandings about location, or procedures for delivering inmates to class.  On Level 4 and Level 3 Security Yards, inmates tend to arrive at the same time.  They are routinely searched before entering the classroom and after they leave. On Level 4 yards inmates always arrived on time, while on the two Special Needs Yards, one at High Desert where inmates were searched before entering the Education Program Facility, and the other at Ironwood, where inmates go through Work Change before a short walk to a vocational education facility called “shoe repair”.

In my most recent trip to Ironwood, I delivered a program to Level 2 inmates serving in the Minimum Security facility.  Because of a broken air conditioning unit in the Education Facility, our classes met in the Visiting area. The inmates on the lower security yards have a greater sense of freedom, which in the art room often translates to “I want to do it my way.”  This can work just fine, provided they achieve results they intend. However I have often discovered that this attitude is really a test of my resolve as a teacher, and actually an opportunity to work towards understanding how to assist with improvement.  In response I discuss with inmates their particular needs for learning. This may involve repeating a demonstration, or simply acknowledging that the lesson/activity needs a better connection for them.  They are adults who probably have a sense of whether they have artistic interests (I’m not calling it talent, because this shuts most people out of the process), which directed study can bring into formation.

In conclusion I want to respond to a cynical comment made by an inmate soon to be parolled from Minimum Security Yard E at ISP.  He labeled the class a “hug a thug” program.  At the time I merely responded that the purpose was to provide an opportunity to learn visual art.  What it revealed in retrospect was the basic distrust of most inmates for potential rehabilitation provided through the prison education programs.  Even if I know that my curriculum is valuable, much of the work must overcome the strong negative beliefs, or indifference to others, that got them their in the first place.  It also occurs to me that his perception was true because programs of such short duration merely remind individual inmates what they are missing.  I’m not the hugging type. My teaching intention is to deliver real experiences in visual arts that may engage making a new world.  He chose not to take the class.

–Jim Dahl

I am attaching a picture made by an inmate at High Desert SP.  It graphically shows the condition of incarceration in the mind.

Art in Correctional Institutions

Prisoner Looking Out

This work was completed by an inmate of High Desert State Prison, where I worked for two weeks teaching painting and drawing with 24 Level 4 felons. Following intensive observation drawing and paint mixing introductions, inmates created works from their own experiences.  Many took the opportunity to play constructively; others such as Inmate Campos shared emotional insights about their incarceration.

I also worked at Ironwood State Prison with a group of Level 3 felons.  Mostly serving life sentences, most of the inmates had never experienced visual art education. The painting class provided a respite from the routines of prison living, and new vista on capabilities.   Sal Hernandez Ironwood


This is my recent series of paintings of furniture used by my own children.

This series of observation based oil paintings adapts child furniture to exploration of relationships, play and psychology. The painterly rendering of form suggests a setting for dialogues. Also evident in the high contrast and bright colors is a recollection of the visual intensity of early memory.